Mamluks were enslaved soldiers
The Mamluks were originally enslaved bodyguards of the Abbasid caliphs of the Islamic Empire (the word “mamluk” just means “slave” in Arabic). Starting around 850 AD, the Abbasid caliphs captured or bought young boys who were not Muslims as slaves.
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The caliphs brought the boys up to be Sunni Muslim soldiers in a slave army. These men made a great army. There soon got to be more and more Mamluks.
Nureddin and the Second Crusade
In 1144, the Mamluk general Imad-ud-Din Zangi conquered Edessa, one of the Crusader states founded after the First Crusade. Some people Zangi had enslaved killed him shortly after that, when he caught them drinking his wine.
When the Second Crusade arrived to win Edessa back, Zangi’s son Nureddin fought them off successfully. After the Second Crusade ended without taking any of his territory, Nureddin created a kingdom for himself in Syria. He conquered Damascus from local Muslim rulers.
Mamluk generals conquer Jerusalem
Mamluks take over Egypt and Syria from the Ayyubids
In 1250 AD Shajar al-Durr, the mother of the last Ayyubid sultan, killed her son and ruled on her own. She negotiated to end the 7th Crusade and let Louis go. Shajar al-Durr soon had to marry the Mamluk leader, Aybak, in order to keep power, but she continued to rule.
In 1257 al-Durr had Aybak killed to try to rule on her own again. After that the other Mamluks arrested al-Durr herself and then killed her, and the Mamluks got control of Egypt and Syria.
Mamluks defeat the Mongols
When the Mongols invaded Syria in 1260 AD, the Bahri Mamluks defeated them at Ain Jalut and pushed the Mongols back to Iran.
It was the first time anyone had defeated the Mongols in a big battle. People were very excited! The victory of Ain Jalut prevented the Mongols from adding the Romanized half of the Islamic Empire to their Mongol Empire. The man who led the Mamluks, Baybars, became sultan after the battle.
Baybars defeats the Crusaders
There was a big battle at Antioch, and in the end the Mamluk soldiers won. They killed 16,000 Christian soldiers and sold all of the hundred thousand people living in Antioch as slaves. (Compare this to Alexander at Tyre, or the Athenian massacre at Melos)
Mamluk trade with Europe – and the Black Death
From 1293 to 1340, the sultan al-Nasir enjoyed an unusually long reign of 47 years! The Mamluks were very powerful, and his court was very rich with gold and all kinds of luxuries. Mamluk traders sold sugar and paper to Europe, and Mamluk Christians brought the idea of painted Easter eggs to Europe.
But this long period of peace and wealth ended just after al-Nasir’s death when the Black Death, or bubonic plague, came to Cairo in 1347 AD and killed many of the people who lived there.
The Ottomans defeat the Mamluks
After 1382 AD – after the Black Death – another group of Mamluks took charge. These sultans were the Burjis, and they were mainly Circassians from southern Russia. There was less peace and more fighting among the Burjis. Instead of exporting paper, Egypt began to buy things like paper, sewing thimbles, and sugar from Europe.
But the Burjos were still very good soldiers against other people too. In 1426 AD, for instance, Mamluk soldiers conquered the island of Cyprus, where Europeans had been growing sugar with the work of enslaved African workers. In 1440, the Mamluk army attacked Rhodes, but they could not take it. By 1517, however, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and took over their empire.